P.S. 276 principal releases troubling overcrowding report

BY ALINE REYNOLDS  |  Overcrowding is poised to create frightening space shortages in one Downtown elementary school.

The Battery Park City School (P.S. / I.S. 276) won’t have room for the three kindergarten classes it was originally designed for, much less the five it has been taking in since last fall, according to Terry Ruyter, the school’s principal. She distributed a report to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s overcrowding task force late last month to illustrate this and other enrollment forecasts on paper.

Were the school to continue enrolling five sections’ worth of kindergarteners in the coming years, it would be three classrooms over capacity next school year, five over capacity in 2014-15 and six over capacity in 2015-16. Even if Ruyter scaled back the kindergarten class to three sections, the school would be short of one classroom next year, two classrooms the following year and two classrooms in 2015-16.

The startling projections align with those conducted in recent years by Financial District resident Eric Greenleaf, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business who is a member of the overcrowding task force. Any beneficial reduction in the local elementary schools’ enrollment caused by last year’s rezoning, he noted, is being more than offset by the influx of neighborhood children vying for school seats.

“Terri is simply stating the facts,” he said of Ruyter’s report. “She has a certain number of children and a certain number of classrooms. What she’s simply conveying is that she is going to run out of room next year.”

The problem isn’t about a mere 10 or 15 waitlisted students, Greenleaf noted. “We’re talking about over half and perhaps all of the kids in a zone,” he said. “It’s a drastic shortage — there won’t be even room for all the siblings.”

Asked to comment, city Department of Education spokesperson Marge Feinberg said only, “We received [Ruyter’s] report and are reviewing it.”

The B.P.C. School isn’t the only Downtown public school that is busting at the seams. Lower Manhattan principals collectively reported an enrollment of 472 kindergarteners — up by approximately 40 from this time last fall. “What’s particularly disconcerting is, 472 exceeds the kindergarten intake capacity that all the schools will have even when the Peck Slip School building is finished in 2015,” said Greenleaf. “As happy as everybody is about Peck Slip, it wouldn’t even be enough for now, much less 2015.”

The problem is only bound to get worse, he asserted, since by the the time the Peck Slip School opens at its permanent home in the South Street Seaport, there will be 30 percent more kindergarten-aged children living in Downtown than now.

To compensate for the space shortages, the D.O.E. has admitted a surplus of children at P.S. 276 and the other neighborhood schools, thereby enlarging class sizes. The B.P.C. School, for example, has 31 students in this year’s first grade, while P.S. 89 has approximately 30 in its first, fourth and fifth grades. “It’s far, far too much — it should be 20 or less in all the early grades,” said Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters, a nonprofit organization that researches and advocates for class size reduction.

Children in smaller classes, she noted, end up graduating college and owning homes at significantly higher rates. “We’re really doing a disservice to kids by allowing class sizes to grow that large,” said Haimson.

P.S. 234 parent Tricia Joyce, who chairs Community Board 1’s Youth and Education Committee, was dismayed by Ruyter’s report. She particularly opposes the repurposing of cluster rooms, which Ruyter and other local public school principals have been forced to do in order to eliminate kindergarten wait lists.

“It’s a disgrace, in my view,” said Joyce. “The D.O.E. should have incubated four classes [per grade instead of two] at Peck Slip and not overloaded P.S. 276 with children.”

Though Drew Paterson, the D.O.E.’s head of portfolio planning, assured the task force that the Spruce Street middle school will be created, as planned, parents are questioning whether there would feasibly be room for it in P.S. 397’s space in the lower levels of Beekman Tower.

While the elementary school was built to hold two classes per grade containing a maximum of 50 kindergarteners per year, P.S. 397 added a class section this year to be able to admit 62 kindergarteners, according to Greenleaf. “People don’t see how [the middle school] could possibly open up,” he said, “since Spruce is taking more kids than it has room for.”

Members of Silver’s task force were also disappointed by the floor plans for the six-story Peck Slip School, which Michael Mirisola from the D.O.E.’s School Construction Authority presented to them for the first time at the Sept. 27 task force meeting. According to the current plans, the pre-K-to-5, 712-seat elementary school will open up five sections per grade rather than four and combine its top-floor gymnasium and auditorium into a single “Gymatorium.”

“To go and add a class per grade, to me, was an admission on their part that they understand that the situation is dire — and that, in a way, is a good thing,” said Joyce of the plans. “But I’m very sad that it’s at a loss of an auditorium.”

Peck Slip principal Maggie Siena isn’t concerned about the setup. While a combined gym and auditorium isn’t ideal, she said, “I understand the S.C.A. is working with constraints. I’m confident that we’ll be able to program the space so that the kids have a really good experience.”

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